Advent is the period preceding the Christmas season. It begins on the Sunday nearest November 30, the feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle, and covers four Sundays. Because the day it begins changes from year to year, so does the length of each Advent season. In 2017, Advent begins on December 3 and lasts only 22 days, because Advent 4 lands on December 24, which is also Christmas Eve!
The word advent is from Latin, and means “the coming.” For centuries, Advent has been a time of spiritual reflection as well as cheer and anticipation. Even as the Christmas season has become more secular—with advertisers urging holiday gift-givers to buy and buy some more—Advent still brings joy and the observance of ancient customs. Christian families find quiet moments lighting candles in the Advent wreath, and children use Advent calendars to count the days until Christmas.
The History of Advent
Advent has probably been observed since the fourth century. Originally, it was a time when converts to Christianity readied themselves for baptism.
During the Middle Ages, Advent became associated with preparation for the Second Coming. In early days Advent lasted from November 11, the feast of St. Martin, until Christmas Day. Advent was considered a pre-Christmas season of Lent when Christians devoted themselves to prayer and fasting. The Orthodox Eastern Church observes a similar Lenten season, from November 15 until Christmas, rather than Advent.
Many Christians still view Advent as a season to prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus. In more recent years, however, it has also come to be thought of as a time of anticipating the Nativity, on Christmas Day.
Advent wreaths have their origins in the folk traditions of northern Europe, where in the deep of winter people lit candles on wheel-shaped bundles of evergreen. Both the evergreen and the circular shape symbolized ongoing life. The candlelight gave comfort at this darkest time of the year, as people looked forward to the longer days of spring.
Later, Eastern European Christians adopted this practice. By the sixteenth century, they were making Advent wreaths much as we know them today. An advent wreath contains four candles—usually three blue and one rose. Traditionally, the candles were purple. Purple dyes were once so rare and costly that they were associated with royalty; the Roman Catholic Church long used this color around Christmas and Easter to honor Jesus. Purple is also the colour of penitence, and so was used for both the seasons of Advent and Lent to mark preparing our hearts for His coming.
In liturgical renewal, the colour for Advent shifted to blue, to symbolize anticipation. Now there are often three blue candles in the Advent wreath. They are sometimes named for hope, peace, and love and are lit on the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent. The rose or pink candle, which symbolizes joy, is usually lit on the third Sunday.
Sometimes a fifth candle is placed inside the Advent wreath. This candle is lit on Christmas Day. White is the colour of the most holy festivals of the church year, so the “Jesus” candle is white. Because Advent wreaths are an informal celebration, not all are the same. Others use all white candles, or replace all the candles on Christmas day with white ones (especially if the blue or purple ones are burning down by then).
A prayer can be offered during the lighting of each candle.
Tips on making an Advent Wreath
Place candles into the oasis first – the white one in the centre and the four other candles at four corners to the white one. Cut fairly short pieces of greenery and trim off excess pines/leaves from the bottom of the stem. Use the flatter greenery on the outer rim of the oasis inserting the stem in at a horizontal angle. Fill spaces in with thicker greenery also inserting at a horizontal angle. Decorate with ivy, holly and pine cones and any other trims you might like to use. Use tall or slow burning candles and keep the greenery low on the oasis to prevent setting fire to the greenery! Never leave lit candles unattended. Keep oasis watered to ensure the longevity of the greenery.
Activities for the week of Advent 1: Hope
Praying with our bodies
This week, pay attention to how your body feels. Is it restless? Go for a walk or visit a playground. Is it bored? Find a game or activity to play with others. Is it tired? Have a healthy snack or take a nap. Try these:
When you say grace at the dinner table, hold hands with the people next to you, or raise your hands in thanksgiving.
Try a different position for prayer. What does standing feel like? Kneeling? Lying down?
When you hear some music, dance to it. Don’t worry who might be watching.
Try a new activity- yoga, t’ai chi ch’uan, stretching exercises, swimming…
A grace to use at mealtimes. Light the 1st candle:
For food in a world where many walk in hunger,
For friends in a world where many walk alone,
For faith in a world where many walk in fear:
We give you humble thanks, O God.
(from the United Church of Canada)
Activities for the week of Advent 2: Peace
Praying with our minds
This week, how can you draw on other people’s wisdom and your own experience to get closer to God? There are many resources online. Go on the web and find a site that provides daily prayer readings and meditations. Sign up for a blog or series of podcasts. Watch a video.
Keep up to speed with the work of PWRDF through its Advent collection of daily devotions and prayers. Sign up for this free on-line resource at http://pwrdf.org/resources/seasonal
For a daily reflection from Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation, go to https://cac.org/category/daily-meditations/
There are a variety of short videos at https://www.ted.com/topics/christianity
Delve into the treasury of books about prayer. From classics like “The Cloud of Unknowing” and “Revelations of Divine Love” to modern books of Celtic prayer or indigenous spirituality to novels that move you to ponder life questions.
Teach a sung or spoken grace that you knew as a child to someone else.
Sit down with a book from the Bible, like Psalms, or this year’s Gospel of Mark, and read it reflectively.
A grace to use at mealtimes. Light the 2nd candle:
Receive our thanks for night and day,
For food and shelter, rest and play.
Be here our guest and with us stay,
Saranam, saranam, saranam.
(Saranam- Refuge Grace)
Activities for the week of Advent 3: Joy
Praying with our hearts
This week, make an effort to bring how you feel into your prayers. Give yourself permission to be honest before God. You could try any of the following:
Put on some music. Let it carry your desires and frustrations and longing.
When you feel the pressure rising, send up an “arrow” prayer for help in the moment. (Short, to the point, e.g., Dear God, give me patience!)
Sit down with a newspaper, radio, television or online news program. Imagine yourself as one of the people in the situation being reported. Say a prayer for him or her.
Spend some time with a friend. Notice how she or he makes you feel and give thanks.
A grace to use at mealtimes. Light the rose candle:
Be present at our table, Lord.
Be here and everywhere adored.
These mercies bless, and grant that we
May with our lives give thanks to Thee. Amen.
(Artaban table grace)
Activities for the week of Advent 4: Love
Praying with our spirits
Often we feel our words or actions are not enough. Try experiencing prayer through one of the following:
Get outside. Find a natural object- a leaf, a rock… Spend some time holding it, examining it closely. Wonder at the hand of God in its creation and its purpose.
Be creative. Make a picture or play with colours on paper. Knit or sew something.
Cook something for someone you love or someone you don’t get along with.
Sit in silence with God. You can use a centering prayer or other discipline that keeps you open to the Divine, e.g., reminding yourself with a sacred word or phrase.
Light a candle. Imagine light surrounding someone you are concerned for.
A grace to use at mealtimes. Light the last blue/purple candle:
Our God, we are Your guests,
And ‘tis you who keeps the generous table.
We thank you. Amen.
(from the Isle of Lewis)
A prayer for the lighting of the central white (Jesus) candle:
rejoicing, we remember the promise of your Son.
As the light comes from this candle,
may the blessing of Christ come upon us,
brightening our way and guiding us by his truth.
May Christ our Saviour bring life into the darkness of our world,
and to us, as we wait for his coming.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.